Newsletter: Worried about getting evicted? Here’s a breakdown of your protections
Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on the economy, many people and businesses struggle to pay rent — crimping landlords’ cash flow and raising worries about eviction.
But an eviction notice isn’t the end of the line. Generally speaking, there are many ways for tenants to fight it.
“If you’re in a rent-control jurisdiction, there’s at least 20 defenses buried in … local ordinances,” housing rights attorney Frances Campbell said. And the pandemic has given rise to new rules that mean that even if an eviction notice appears on your door, it might be illegal to kick you out.
This doesn’t mean all evictions are off the table. California courts resumed eviction hearings nearly two months ago, and landlords are now allowed to oust tenants for property damage, criminal activity and other lease violations unless they’re in a city that prohibits it.
Let’s discuss a few of the protections in place for California renters during the pandemic, as well as some actions tenants can take.
Take preemptive action
If you’re falling behind on rent, don’t just wait for consequences. Your landlord may be open to negotiation.
“We’ve said from the beginning that owners should try to work things out with their tenants,” said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. “We are not in the eviction business.”
In terms of working out a solution, Yukelson said, “it always goes a long way when tenants can afford to pay something.” Half or even 10% of the payment can help landlords meet their own financial obligations.
“Residents shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their housing provider,” agreed Fred Sutton, a senior vice president of public affairs with the California Apartment Assn. “Rent rates are collapsing ... A housing provider is going to do everything they can to keep you there.”
If that doesn’t resolve the situation, band together with your landlord’s other renters, says Paul Lanctot, an organizer with the Los Angeles Tenants Union. Speak with your roommates and neighbors and educate them about their rights, Lanctot advises. He suggests forming a tenancy association, where you can push back against landlord demands together.
“You can negotiate really anything with your landlord,” Lanctot said, including forgiveness for back rent. Commercial tenants, particularly if they are in an area with other businesses, should consider organizing as well, he said.
To begin negotiating, Lanctot said, tenants should open up a line of communication, via a phone conference, where the tenants and landlords can discuss the struggles they’re facing and how the landlord could help mitigate these issues. Coming out of that meeting, establish a clear list of demands and then try to negotiate to achieve them.
During the COVID-19 crisis, a patchwork of eviction moratoriums have taken effect on the national, state and local levels.
The nationwide rule makes it illegal to evict certain residential tenants before Jan. 1, 2021, for nonpayment of rent. The tenants need to meet certain requirements, and their past-due rent becomes due all at once Jan. 1. But the national law is just a baseline, overridden by state and local laws that are more generous to renters.
California law gives tenants more breathing room. Under AB 3088, a state law passed at the end of August, residential renters can’t be evicted for nonpayment through the end of January as long as they file a declaration with their landlord that says they have undergone a financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. (By the end of January, they need to pay at least 25% of what they owe. The rest of the past-due rent becomes consumer debt, and if they don’t pay it voluntarily, then landlords who want the money must go to small claims court.)
The Los Angeles Tenants Union advises renters to file these declarations as long as they don’t include agreeing to a payment plan.
“If you get a 15-day pay-or-quit notice that includes a declaration to sign, we encourage you to reach out to a local tenancy organization just to double-check it,” Lanctot said.
Reporter Liam Dillon wrote extensively last month about how landlords and tenants can navigate the state rules.
In Los Angeles, rules shielding tenants are stronger than the statewide laws, and the city has created a guide to protections for residential tenants.
Commercial tenants in Los Angeles County are also protected: For now, landlords are banned from evicting them for pandemic-related nonpayment of rent. This moratorium, due to expire Nov. 30, can be extended by the county on a month-to-month basis.
Even if your landlord is threatening eviction, you do not need to take the initiative to move out. Although threats of eviction and fear of rent debt piling up “are scary things, we encourage everyone to not give up their leases,” Lanctot said.
“A landlord can never obtain possession without going to court,” Campbell said. Because of this, tenants shouldn’t move out unless they want to. Furthermore, she said, “tenants shouldn’t be afraid just because you get an eviction lawsuit ... but they should get lawyers.” If you can’t hire a lawyer, Campbell advises visiting the courthouse and going to the self-help center for assistance.
Because of the pandemic, it will take quite a while for courts to process eviction cases.
“The tsunami of evictions still has to flow through the very narrow garden hose of the Superior Court system,” Campbell explained.
This delay, Lanctot said, creates a lot of negotiating leverage for the tenant. “If your landlord is trying to evict you ... that’s going to take a very long time.”
During the pandemic, Lanctot said, the L.A. Tenants Union has seen “a lot of illegal evictions, where landlords are trying to forcibly remove tenants from the unit because they could not do so through the courts, because of the increase in tenant protections.” If a landlord tries to illegally enter your home or move your possessions outside, Campbell said, you should “call the police, same as if he comes at you with a gun. That’s a crime.”
If you have questions about your rights as a tenant, there are groups that can help. Campbell suggests reaching out to the City of Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department hotline. She also recommends the Coalition for Economic Survival, with which she offers Zoom counseling meetings for those with questions about rent.
The L.A. Tenants Union is available to answer eviction-related questions and provide support for those who receive pay-or-quit notices.
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